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Mobile Information Management: Mobile Device Primer
Mobile Information Management: Mobile Device Primer

There are three critical questions you must consider when investigating mobile synchronization and data-management solutions.

Mobile devices are entering the corporate enterprise in two distinct ways. The first is through the traditional IT infrastructure in which IT managers standardize a device and distribute it to employees. However, because of the low costs generally associated with PDAs, many employees are buying their own devices, bringing them into the corporate infrastructure, and asking IT to support them. This second method of entry is an unnerving prospect for many IT managers because it makes implementing mobile device hardware standards difficult. In reality, even if IT selects a single PDA platform, employee demand will dictate that they'll have to support other devices too.

No matter how PDAs enter the corporate enterprise, IT has little control over the information employees are gathering on these mobile devices when they synchronize at the PC level. And, because the form factor of the PDA is smaller, these devices tend to get lost or stolen, raising additional security concerns regarding what information may be available to the outside world.

This thought is so troubling that many IT managers and business owners have sought to find a solution that gives them more control over both PDAs that are sanctioned by IT and these "rogue" mobile devices that are brought in through "the back door." The solution for many may be to implement mobile data management software.

Generally speaking, mobile data management software contains two primary elements. First, there's a server synchronization component that allows mobile device users to access and synchronize personal information management (PIM) information anytime, anywhere. PIM information includes e-mail, contacts, calendars, and to-do lists. Synchronization ensures that PDA users have the same information on their PDAs as they do on their corporate servers.

In effect, this allows mobile users who need access only to PIM information to move away from the larger laptop form factor to the lighter and less expensive PDA form factor. Synchronizing at the server level, as opposed to the PC level, enables IT managers to regulate what information users have access to. Many IT managers see this as a major benefit.

Second, the more robust mobile data-management solutions provide additional features. These may include managing the data and applications transferred to mobile devices, mobile device status reports (provides a method of diagnosing problems on remote mobile devices), and backup-and-restore capabilities.

As mobile devices continue to enter the enterprise, IT managers will be unable to avoid the need for mobile data-management software. But how should IT managers go about choosing the correct solution for their business? This article addresses the three critical areas that business owners and IT staff must look at when investigating mobile data-management solutions currently on the market. These considerations will help IT quickly and securely integrate handheld devices into the enterprise, and maximize the benefits of mobile device deployment.

Question 1:
What types of mobile devices does the software support, and what platforms are supported at the server level?
Look for the product that provides cross-platform support on all levels.

There are multitudes of mobile devices currently on the market. These devices generally use one of the following operating systems: Palm Computing's Palm OS, Microsoft's Windows CE/Pocket PC, or Symbian's EPOC (most common in Europe). Today, these operating systems collectively represent approximately 90% of the market.

When selecting mobile data-management software, it's imperative that the solution be able to handle both Palm and Pocket PC operating systems, and EPOC, if any employees are located in Europe. At some point, there's a possibility that the IT department will be asked to support all three at the same time. Instead of purchasing specific software to manage each mobile OS, it's much easier to simply purchase one solution that supports all three. And, it's much more cost-effective.

It's also important to determine what type of groupware or e-mail software platforms the product supports. For example, many corporations with Lotus Domino are considering migrating to Microsoft Exchange and vice versa. Larger corporations that have multiple locations and international subsidiaries may have different groupware products at different sites. To ensure that the investment made in mobile data-management software remains a long-term investment, it's important to determine if the management software supports multiple PIM applications.

Once again, look for a single solution that supports the most popular devices and groupware software on the market.

Question 2:
How well does this software allow me to manage mobile devices, and what about security?
One of the major benefits of synchronizing PDAs through servers as opposed to individual PCs is that it allows for central management. IT has control over what employees are accessing on the server, but little control over what information they're accessing on PCs.

When evaluating the different solutions on the market, look for those that allow group profiles, remote installation capabilities, backup-and-restore capabilities, and log-and-issue reports.

Invariably, different employees within an organization will have different requirements when using PDAs. A solid mobile data-management software solution will enable IT administrators to set up group profiles that determine which application installation, file transfer, and data synchronization occurs for each individual group.

For example, when a salesperson connects a mobile device to the network, he or she could receive a different set of applications than a manufacturing engineer. The IT administrator could "push" the latest company sales presentation to employees in the sales group - but not to the engineering group.

With a possible mixture of employee- and company-owned PDAs, imagine the opportunity costs associated with recalling mobile devices every time an upgrade or new application needs to be installed. Mobile data-management software should enable IT administrators to remotely install and configure applications on mobile devices. Whenever a new application needs to be installed, IT administrators have to be able to select the group that should receive the installation. When connecting the device to the network, either through a wired or wireless connection, the employee will receive the latest updates and upgrades on his or her PDA.

One continual concern for IT staff is ensuring that corporate devices are backed up on a regular basis. Servers and, consequently, connected PCs and laptops, are. PDAs require the same treatment - they need full backup-and-restore capabilities. Look for a mobile data-management solution that allows for the easy and simple backup of data on a PDA to corporate servers.

Finally, log-and-issue reports are an important consideration. Inherently, mobile device users in the field will have problems. A good mobile data-management solution will log the status and error of mobile devices, so that IT administrators can easily diagnose problems for remote employees.

Question 3:
What other capabilities does this mobile data-management software provide?
PIM synchronization may satisfy the majority of employee needs. Many will indicate that all they really want access to on their PDAs is current e-mail, calendar, contact, and to-do lists. But many IT administrators are exploring the capabilities of smaller form-factor mobile devices as field tools, effectively replacing bulky and costly laptops.

An effective mobile data-management solution will support the customization of applications on PDAs, and will support synchronization to custom ODBC-compliant databases. For example, field representatives could gather sales and marketing information while visiting customers. This information could be entered into a customized application residing on a PDA. Once the field marketing representative connects a PDA to the corporate server (through a wired or wireless connection), this information is automatically downloaded into a central repository (custom ODBC-compliant database). This can effectively replace a paper-based system, and enables management to make better decisions in a more timely manner.

Another example is in the medical field. Doctors on patient rounds could use a custom application on a PDA to gather information on the condition of individuals under hospital care. After rounds are complete, the data could be downloaded and synchronized to a central server, ensuring that all doctors have access to the most current information. Medical history and pharmaceutical records could be available electronically, alleviating any concerns about handwriting mistakes.

Mobile devices should no longer be viewed as stand-alone trinkets for the technically savvy. PDAs can become strategic components of the enterprise whether they're provided to employees through sanctioned IT programs, or come in through the back door. The critical element for the successful deployment of mobile devices throughout the corporate enterprise is an effective mobile data-management solution. These products are available today and their integration can be relatively painless. Most important, once implemented, management can benefit by utilizing the smaller form factor of the PDA, ultimately increasing the bottom line.

About Mark Willnerd
Mark Willnerd is product marketing manager for Extended Systems' mobile data-management product lines. He has played an intricate part in developing strategic relationships with Motorola, Microsoft, IBM, Ericsson, and other leading mobile manufacturers. He holds a BS in electrical engineering from
the University of Wyoming.

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